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What do YOU consider "empty calories"?

There was a recent thread where the OP was trying to break his cola habit. Someone made the comment that they're "empty calories" which I have no argument with. But it got me to thinking that there are many beloved foods that someone could classify as "EC." If we can start from the premise that most of us probably don't need any more fat, calories, carbs, etc. in our diets (there are exceptions, of course. Our daughter and her husband are VERY serious athletes and when they're climbing mountains they really do need more calories and fat) then I think plenty of foods would qualify for empty/unnecessary/excessive foods. Since I don't like desserts, almost all of those are easy for me to categorize that way. But what about mashed potatoes? I know; I know. Everything in moderation. But if we're honest some people's empty is another's totally necessary --- and shouldn't be given up completely except for medical reasons. Any thoughts on this?
PS: I sure am happy I don't like desserts. That would be a tough one :)

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  1. For me, "empty calories" are calories that neither (a) satisfy my hunger nor (b) add to my enjoyment of the meal. So regular soda is number one on my list, since it's full of sugar and for a non-alcoholic beverage I'm perfectly happy with water, unsweetened ice tea, or the occasional diet soda. I feel the same way about fruit juice - I hardly ever have it, because I much prefer to "spend" those calories on an actual piece of fruit that's going to help fill me up. Also mayonnaise or super creamy salad dressings - it's not that I dislike them, but I also really like sandwiches with just mustard and salad with just a bit of oil and vinegar, so I skip them most of the time. Then there are the gradations - are hot, fresh french fries empty calories? No way. But the bottom layer of a giant pile of fries that has long gone cold and soggy - those I can do without. Which brings me back to your everything in moderation comment.

    7 Replies
    1. re: cookie monster

      I think you summed up my thoughts almost exactly.

      One really big pet peeve of mine that I consider an "empty calorie" is the decorative white cream found on alot of wedding and birthday cakes. Ick.

      1. re: ipsedixit

        I eat so little "sweet" things (by choice), that cake with icing bothers my system. If I eat those kinds of desserts I have to remove or work around the BS. I like a little good icing, but what's in that shit anyway?

      2. re: cookie monster

        cookie_monster also was bang-on with a lot of what I consider to be empty calories also. I try to stay away from fruit juice, but because I have a hard time drinking water plain, I tend to splash a bit of juice into it for flavouring. I know it adds up to calories unneeded, but if it gets me drinking more water...

        I also stay away from mayo on sandwiches, unless it's a necessary component, such as with tuna salad. I also don't butter the bread.

        I use skim-milk instead of 2% or worse, homo, which my hubby loves. But he's got the metabolism of a 10 years old boy, so...

        1. re: KayceeK

          OK, KayceeK. Do you not have Simply Smart or Over the Moon milk? I drink 1 percent of either brand (whichever is on sale) and it tastes just like 2 percent.

          I assume you meant whole milk for "homo," though I giggled to read "homo, which my hubby loves." Not that there's anything wrong with that!!! JUST TEASING. ;)

          1. re: kattyeyes

            We've been drinking nonfat for so many years that 2% tastes like cream to us :)

            1. re: kattyeyes

              HAHA! Definitely NOT a Freudian slip though. :) I will have to check out Over the Moon. Thanks kattyeyes.

          2. re: cookie monster

            cookie monster pretty much hit it - i don't think i could have said it any better. if i'm not going to enjoy eating it, or if it leaves me feeling completely unsatisfied, there's no point. for me, it's not necessarily about entire categories of food...though i *do* think sugary sodas/beverages are empty calories, regardless of who you are and how much you love them. and i think fruit juice is a poor substitute for whole fruit, so unless that's the ONLY way to get someone to add those particular nutrients to their diet, i'd consider it to be a source of empty calories as well.

            there is one other thing i see as a complete waste of calories for ANYONE - those alcoholic drinks with all sorts of mixers and sugars in them. it's one thing if you want to enjoy a nice glass of wine, a nice aged scotch, a good beer, or a martini or margarita made with high-quality liquor. but frozen margaritas, pina coladas, daiquiris, cosmos, and all those crazy high-school mixed drinks (e.g. LI iced tea, sea breeze, sex on the beach, fuzzy navel...)? what's the point if you have to add all that sugar, juice, and flavoring to make it taste good? in those cases, it's not about appreciating the liquor/alcohol, it's about getting drunk. and if that's your goal, there are much more waistline-friendly options.

            i may be more of a health nut than most Chers (or more people, period), but i still think there's room for moderate indulgence. will i have a few bites of a really worthwhile dessert? absolutely. a handful of hot, crispy french fries off the top of the pile? you bet. and no day would be complete for me without at least one piece of dark chocolate.

          3. As the "someone" who made the "empty calories" comment, I thought I'd chime in. BTW, nbermas (the OP trying to break a cola habit) is a woman, so ya know. ;)

            I qualify empty calories as those consumed that offer no nutritional value. Whether the caloric offenders taste good is beside the point. I kicked a lot of empty calories over the past couple of years and don't mind sharing that soda and alcoholic beverages are two huge sources of empty calories--they offer no nutrition, just sugar (or HFCS, in many cases) and/or a buzz. Now, not to be a buzzkill, I like an adult beverage as much as anyone, but recognize it's just empty calories. Also on the sad but true list: chocolate. And I am very much a chocolate lover. So I'm not saying I don't eat/drink these things. I do try to do so in moderation.

            cookie monster, good call on the fruit juice. Those are empty calories to me, too, and I almost never have just a glass of fruit juice (or I cut it with water 'cause it's just too sweet). Exception: grapefruit juice, esp. fresh-squeezed. Isn't that good for me, after all? Even if I make it into a margarita?

            Now, we cross the bridge into "wasted calories"--as in, "I'm not going to waste my calories on...
            - sub-par desserts from the grocery store, or anything made with canned frosting
            - fries that aren't cooked to my liking (cold or soggy as cookie monster mentioned)...though, depending how hungry I am, I have been known to eat them anyway, then regret wasting my calories on something less delicious than it could have been.

            5 Replies
            1. re: kattyeyes

              This should make you feel better about the chocolate. And the findings come from Yale-New Haven, virtual nabes of yours:


              I gotta tell ya that a crummy grocery store cupcake and one from the finest baker in the world are "wasted" as far as I'm concerned. And if I'm going to have a potato chip, I want Wavy Lays.

              PS: I know that she's a she. Just going for the generic.
              PPS: I knew that you would "weigh" in --- hee hee xxx,c

              1. re: c oliver

                Excellent, chocolate is good for me! I did know that, but somehow don't feel like when I'm indulging in fudge that I'm really doing myself any favors (besides that it's just satisfying). I'd say chocolate is fantastic for my mental health!

                Blueberries are loaded with antioxidants and also good for me. Thank you, Ma, for the delicious blueberry scone I enjoyed for mid-morning snack today. Fruit is good for me, even if dressed up in an iced scone. ;) Oatmeal cookies are also good for me even if mine are made with M&Ms.

                I am so never going to bake anything for you. ;) *Especially* now that you're making jokes about my weight! jk, jk!

                1. re: kattyeyes

                  Oh, lil darlin', *I* don't make jokes about other people's weight. One of those glass houses things!!!

              2. re: kattyeyes

                I agree. If it has nutritional value, it's not empty calories. A basket of french fries may not be the wisest place to spend your caloric allotment, but they do have a significant amount of vitamins, minerals, etc. Not so with a cola.

                Even fruit juice is nutritious (although some of the apple and grape juices out there are nearly pure sugar). Gin, on the other hand, is not. Which is why I'm going to go make a gimlet now instead of a dry martini. Vitamin C and all. Cheers!

                1. re: alanbarnes

                  I agree with you, and thus do not agree that the term empty calories is subjective. White sugar has no nutritional value. Brown sugar has nutritional value. White sugar calories are empty. Brown sugar calories are not (though they're not real full either).
                  And most juice - not fruit flavored sugar water, but fruit juice - at least has antioxidants. You've got to process the hell out of most things to get them to be empty calories.

              3. Not really empty, but inecessary calories...............
                A hamburger Bun. I prefer mine on a plate with a knife and fork.
                Oversized rye bread on a good quality deli sandwich. I say the bread should be just big enough to keep my fingers dry when eating that hot pastrami.

                This doesn't mean I don't like bread. Crunch toast is one of my favorite things in the world. 5 days a week, i have a well toasted roll or bagel w/ margarine and black coffee for breakfast. Weekends, I add eggs, etc.

                14 Replies
                  1. re: c oliver

                    No offense to bagelman, but you can add margarine to my list of wasted/empty calories. Give me butter or give me, well, cream cheese! ;)

                    1. re: kattyeyes

                      Bacon grease. Never really understood why it didn't catch on as a topping for toast. ;-)

                      1. re: alanbarnes

                        What an excellent idea, Alan. Bob's leaving for Oregon tomorrow (supposed to be 104 for his golf tournament on Sat.); maybe we'll have *bacon butter* on our NY bagel in the a.m. Bon voyage, Bob.

                        1. re: alanbarnes

                          Never had bacon grease on toast, but as kids we always dipped the crust of rye bread in the chickem drippings, or spread chicken fat on bread with meat meals (NO DAIRY ALLOWED)

                          1. re: alanbarnes

                            Alan has enlightened me on the many uses of bacon grease. I like it slathered on a hunk of bread or in place of butter when making a grilled cheese.

                            Alan, just this morning I cooked an egg using your bacon grease method. Perfect! It's fair to say I'm a convert.

                            1. re: alanbarnes

                              Point of clarification: the notion of putting bacon grease on toast was not supposed to be serious. On the other hand, if somebody tries it and it's delicious, I claim full credit.

                              1. re: alanbarnes

                                You can clarify bacon greae like butter?

                                1. re: alanbarnes

                                  How delicious is bacon grease on butter? I might want to try it.

                                  1. re: alanbarnes

                                    A traditional part of a British breakfast is fried bread - just a slice of bread fried in the bacon fat.
                                    Toast and dripping (beef) was something I was brought up with - cheap calories and part of a large family with no money.

                                    1. re: alanbarnes

                                      I fry my bread in the bacon grease. This is very popular in the UK. One of my favourite breakfast items.

                                      1. re: theresah

                                        Okay, gonna have to try this now. I promise not to give up your names when my cardiologist gets out the bright lights and thumbscrews.

                                    2. re: alanbarnes

                                      Onions slowly fried in bacon grease until golden brown. Let cool, cream in butter, spread on black bread, and sprinkle with coarse salt. Serve with a glass of fresh buttermilk. Mmmmmmm.......

                                    3. re: kattyeyes

                                      While I like butter for baking and on vegetables, I prefer the taste of Imperial Margarine on toast.
                                      I detest the taste and texture of cream cheese, and only use it for baking

                                2. Fruit juices, regular sodas and basicly any beverage with sugar. Also, most sandwiches have too much bread/bun and I will pick off hunks of bread and discard to save myself the carbs.

                                  Most type 1 diabetics like myself conserve our carbs/calories because too many means more insulin. We especially avoid high-carb beverages. No point in drinking your carbs.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: lynnlato

                                    Smart, disciplined diabetics can teach us all alot. Thanks, ll.

                                    1. re: lynnlato

                                      Yep, I am also insulin dependent and agree with your list. I would add any sauces that contain excessive sweetener, inferior bread products, and most desserts. Fortunately, I do not have much of a sweet tooth and would choose a glass of wine over dessert any time.

                                      1. re: tcamp

                                        I, too, don't have much of a sweet tooth - and it's wine for me also! Besides, a little wine helps lower my BG. :)

                                    2. Most beverages with calories actually - aside form the occasional hot chocolate in winter. I don't care for alcohol to begin with so I don't drink adult beverages. I'd much rather bite into an apple or orange than drink the juice. Most salad dressings are also a waste to me. I much prefer the components to speak for themselves, maybe with a bit of help from a splash of oil and vinegar. I completely agree on desserts, but most of all those that are not homemade!

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: enbell

                                        I assume you mean bottled, commercial salad dressings?

                                        1. re: c oliver

                                          Absolutely! Sorry for the confusion :) By the way, how did you fruit dessert and/or salad turn out? Liqueur or no liqueur?

                                          1. re: enbell

                                            No liqueur, champagne vinegar instead and it was SO much better than the booze. Really, really good.

                                      2. To me, most alcoholic beverages are empty calories. I mean, I like a good margarita or pina colada when sitting on the beach or at a nice pool, but overall, I'd rather have food for my calories.

                                        And as someone who has been in and out of Weight Watchers forever, it always amazes me how some people will make sure to incorporate that glass of wine into their points/calories for the day. I'd much rather have that extra piece of bread or dessert. It's not even a contest.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: valerie

                                          And I'd rather have the glass of wine and bag the bread/dessert. That's why I know that *empty* is a subjective term.

                                          1. re: c oliver

                                            Same here. When we dine out, it's usually entrees and drinks. Sometimes we'll splurge on an appetizer (or I'll have apps as entree). Good beer and wine are an important part of our meals!

                                          2. re: valerie

                                            Beer in particular is a semi-Achilles heel, so when I drink a beer I don't fool around... I drink good stuff. Good stuff wine and scotch is harder to afford.

                                          3. Sandwich bread.
                                            How often do you get crap bread, which you don't enjoy eating, and it's almost an inch thick? Many fancy, over-the-top sandwiches, or even hamburgers, are almost impossible to hold and eat. They are often easier to eat, left on the plate, and eaten with a fork and knife. Why do you need the top piece, especially when you are serving an overstuffed, slimy, drippy one?
                                            When I hold a sandwich, or burger, I am often tearing off the bread as I go so I don't have to eat it. Depends on whether it is good bread, or not, or how full I want to get.
                                            Edit: Had missed and not read Bagelman's post when I did mine; amazing the similarities.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: Scargod

                                              Had a late lunch today (3PM) at Lena's Cafe in Westville Center (New Haven), CT. We were coming from a funeral. There were 23 of us for lunch. The sandwiches and paninis were all very large (overstuffed) and very tasty (and fresh.

                                              I looked around and saw that more than 15 of us ated the meal open faced with a knife and fork and left at least half the bread. My nephew's wife ordered her sandwich without bread. the large slices of bread were just uneccessary bulk. Although quality bread, they did not add to the meal. I had a tsucan vefetable panini-Roasted eggplant, roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil. I ate the inside of the panini along with the lettuce and pickle garnish. The bread just allowed the panini press to heat the veg and melt the cheese.

                                            2. Empty Calories = ones that I don't particularly enjoy and that have no real nutritional value. Sodas and sugary drinks in general are a waste of calories - DH will drink two or three refills on his 'bottomless' soda cup with a meal, but I'm much happier with water and a few sips of his drink for flavour. So are mountains of plain rice or pasta - I enjoy both, but you only need about half a cup for a serve, not two or three. The last category of 'empty calories' are bought foods that really aren't worth what you pay for them. They're full of fat and sugar and salt, low on flavour (aside from sugar/salt), and they don't really taste good.

                                              1. For me, I'll opt out of meh bread, excess hard booze, fruit juices (again,I'll opt for the fruit itself), soda, canned veggies and meh potatoes that accompany that meh bread at restaurants.

                                                1. I wish there were such a thing as empty calories. All calories contribute to weight gain.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                    Oh, sigh, ain't it the truth, Mr. Skinny Cowboy :)

                                                  2. Just about anything 75% of people under the age of 30 are eating.(and there are plenty over the age of 30 too!)

                                                    14 Replies
                                                    1. re: mrbigshotno.1

                                                      Sometimes I'm not sure where people are getting their impressions of my age group from. My personal observation show that Generation Y eats a lot healthier and exercises more than Baby Boomers and Generation X - and why wouldn't we, given that we have more disposable income and less children. National health statistics back this up. Nutrition and health science tend to improve over time.

                                                      1. re: danieljdwyer

                                                        I was surprised by that comment also, djd. I agree with your rationale and would add another reason is that for all of your lives, nutrition and exercise have been receiving attention. I'm 62 and I'd say more of my generation had to learn those things.
                                                        PS: I'd consider a bowl of ice cream as empty calories, whereas your "meat sauce" is a new addtion to my food pyramid. As we're saying here, there are choices.

                                                        1. re: danieljdwyer

                                                          So funny. I've only read some of your posts, DJD, but I was under the impression that you were a cranky old codger - but a cool one - if you know what I mean.

                                                          That aside, the posts here are right on! French fries, fruit juice, white rice and "wraps" are all foods I don't eat and never miss.

                                                          1. re: zoe p.

                                                            What's wrong with wraps??? I will generally use a tortilla if I want something like that but what's "empty" about wraps?

                                                            1. re: c oliver

                                                              Wraps at a restaurant or lunch place (Mexican cuisine aside) always seem to be bland, gummy and not very fresh or flavorful. I mean, literally, the thing that wraps. Not the contents, which vary, of course!! I unwrap and eat with a fork.

                                                              1. re: zoe p.

                                                                I'm not sure I've ever ordered one out so I'll follow your lead and not :)

                                                                1. re: zoe p.

                                                                  This is true. Why wrap it and add calories unless you need to eat it while running down the street, or because they don't offer plasticware? They are often bogus, cheap and unhealthy. Peel and eat, like a banana?

                                                                  1. re: Scargod

                                                                    Exactly. I believe wraps were invented by caterers too lazy to provide good, fresh bread.

                                                                    I know some are super-low-carb or whatever, and if that's your thing, cool. But not most of 'em.

                                                                    1. re: zoe p.

                                                                      " I believe wraps were invented by caterers too lazy to provide good, fresh bread. "

                                                                      - Great line! And thank you for defending "us"! I agree completely :)

                                                                    2. re: Scargod

                                                                      I remember that at the height of the low carb craze many restos were featuring burgerless burgers - and they wrapped them in iceberg lettuce. Just not the same as a nice brioche roll. :)

                                                                      1. re: lynnlato

                                                                        I actually like that. Crunchy. And I'm not a huge bread eater - at least unless it's really, really good bread.

                                                                  2. re: c oliver

                                                                    I'm with you on the wraps. I think it's just a matter of personal preference. I really don't like sliced bread and would prefer a crunchy baguette. When you have to use a fork, you don't always get the same flavors at once.

                                                                    As for the burgers, I'd rather get a bun than a huge half-pound burger. I don't really feel like I ever need that much meat.

                                                                  3. re: zoe p.

                                                                    Ha. Too funny. When I was a young kid, my nickname among family was "The World's Youngest Octogenarian". I guess I haven't gotten any younger.

                                                                2. re: mrbigshotno.1

                                                                  What I see among younger people is more interest in quality foods/ingredients and health generally than in older generations. I think there's this stereotype of frat boys subsisting off of pizza and beer for 4 years, but that's hardly the reality for most young people. I friends who live in a college town and they have far more access to quality ingredients/CSA than I have in my larger city known more for retirees that is filled with lots of chain restaurants.

                                                                3. Like most people, I'd say soda, fruit juice, mediocre candy/sweets, mayo-based anything (can make it just as creamier with yogurt) are all empty calories. Extra bread on my sandwich is also in that category, as well as crusts on pie. Just give me the filling any day.

                                                                  On the bread/dessert note, I must say I love me some good bread or a high-quality dessert item. HOWEVER, I do not see the justification for insane amounts of butter, oil, heavy cream or any other rich ingredient in a recipe that, alas, I seem to see a lot of around here. Applesauce works wonders for moisture, as does yogurt.

                                                                  Finally, bad meat. I don't eat red meat now, but I remember having to eat mediocre cuts of tough beef.

                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                  1. re: ApprenticeGourmet

                                                                    Just for the sake of a Devil's advocate, what is optimal? Raw apples, rather than pie filling? Apples that don't have all their sugar content and are higher in fiber? I am reminded of my F*in peach tree, where all the peaches get moldy within a few days. If they get near ripe they get moldy or the squirrels get them. I hate it.
                                                                    But back to my question. Shouldn't we just eat raw apples and not pie or pie filling (with sugar, butter and wheat flour added in)?
                                                                    I sometimes just want to eat healthy and make up for it by drinking a good scotch.
                                                                    Had rare grilled steak tonight with grilled patty pan squash and broccoli, sautéed with garlic, lemon and basil. Also a nice cab. No bread or anything else.

                                                                  2. All foods have their place! Even the ones that we don't think of as being particularly nourishing. The first ascent of Denali occurred in 1910 in part thanks to the type of food the inexperienced climbers brought with them; doughnuts and hot cocoa. Another expedition, years later, had to turn back in part because they brought, as their main food source, beef jerky.

                                                                    Digestion is impaired at high altitudes, and because simple sugars are easy to digest doughnuts and coca sustained the climbers well. Beef jerky, on the other hand, is almost 100% protein and much more difficult to digest. The climbers who brought that along were having trouble getting the energy they needed to climb. Most people would consider beef jerky healthier than coca + doughnuts, but in this case it was much less useful.

                                                                    Extreme example, I know, but it does show that even simple sugars have value. Do I eat a lot of them? No, because I don't need to and in most cases, don't like the forms they take (no Little Debbie for me, thanks). However, that 100% fructose energy gel is really darned useful when paddling/hiking for long periods of time.

                                                                    2 Replies
                                                                    1. re: pickledtink

                                                                      Great story - I had no idea that was the reason for their success. Yes to the impared digestion the higher you are. When backpacking for extended periods we have been known to use those Lipton Sides packets as opposed to plain pasta or rice because they seem to take less time to cook, and with all the sweating, it's an easy way to replace sodium!

                                                                      1. re: enbell

                                                                        Ditto on the Lipton Sides for backpacking...not bad and cheaper than Mountain House/Backpackers Pantry.

                                                                        And to make this relevant...even my mom, who would normally never touch instant-type foods as they are "junk" agrees that they are wonderful when a kitchen is 5,000 feet down and many miles away.